Finding the right balance in any horror movie is vital. Ma is structured as a psychological horror film focused on the escalating tension between a lonely older woman and a group of teenagers. The fun in this film comes from watching a terrific off-kilter performance from Octavia Spencer matched against a group of kids you’d only want to root for on moral terms because all of their actions are incredibly dumb. Following the Blumhouse Productions model of being quick-paced and to-the-point, there’s enough impressive work in the production to note the level of personality this twisted thriller has. At the same time, if y’all are just coming to get a few quick scares from Ma, this movie delivers.
Before getting to Spencer’s Sue Ann, we are introduced to Maggie (Diana Silvers), the new girl in town who quickly befriends Haley (McKaley Miller) and her friends. With plans to hang out and drink after school, the teens ask a random woman to help buy them alcohol. This would be Sue Ann (who comes to being called Ma), who eventually sees fit to have the kids over at her house, so they can drink in the basement, ideally containing the situation to some degree. The over-the-top hospitality soon turns Ma’s home into the hot spot for high school parties. That said, Ma’s fixation on Maggie and her friends soon becomes obsessive to a dangerous degree.
This is a real swerve for Spencer and director Tate Taylor. Taylor has gone from directing Spencer to an Oscar win in The Help to finding new territory to explore with a modern grindhouse flick. At a reported $5 million budget, there’s only so much room to work with, but Taylor seems to have used that as a proper challenge compared to what was afforded to him for his trashy thriller The Girl on the Train, or even his music biopic Get on Up. For Ma, the film is confined to a small town and does a terrific job not only establishing a set of characters who all have a purpose but adding enough personality to keep the film grounded and creepy.
As a result, the movie only really suffers from seemingly cutting down on the character moments, in favor of keeping up the tension. While there’s plenty to say about Spencer’s performance as Ma, the movie gets a lot of mileage out of its first two acts thanks to good work from Silvers and Juliette Lewis as her mother. The same can be said about the supporting actors; whether it’s the kids, a briefly featured Allison Janney as Ma’s veterinarian boss, or Luke Evans as one of the kid’s fathers. Because you have relatable or, at the very least, quirky characters making up this cast, it’s easier to see how things become askew the more unhinged Ma gets.
It’s to the film’s service that Spencer embraces her role to such a scary degree. Talented as she may be, playing the supportive black female friend in movies has led to some thankless roles of late, which are never unwelcome but certainly aren’t as memorable. Here, we see a horror film with the rare black female villain who is also the lead. It means delivering on a layered character who has suffered from social rejection and bullying, only to become this tricky adult persona with a mind on revenge, among other things. Between the insecurity and the attitude, Spencer shines here, which is made all the better given how idiotic the teenagers are in their choices.
Regardless of how strong and even believable the characters may be, there are so many choices made that are obviously bad. Whether it’s going along with a stranger to drink in their house or acting normal amidst the suspicious rules about not going upstairs, even after hearing strange noises, these kids act like the very dumb teenagers from the dead teenager slasher movies of the 80s. The film may walk the line as far as how much suspension of belief is necessary, but my empathy was undoubtedly being tested given just how far things went, as Ma becomes more and more of a clear threat.
Still, all of this is part of the entertainment. Ma has a lot of fun with its premise, blending humor with tense moments. By the time the film becomes a full-on genre picture, some disturbing body horror sequences are sure to have audiences squirming in their seats. Taylor gets that, and as a director, he wisely chooses when to let the film go big. It may not be after anything more than cheap thrills, but enough effort has been put in to land its moments in the right way.